The Orwellian Distortion of “Humane”

I think one of the most horrific things about industrial animal agriculture is that, by any measure of decency, it’s so horrific. What I mean here is that it exists on such a deep level of hell that virtually any other approach to raising animals for food–such as so-called sustainable animal agriculture–looks comparatively angelic. Making matters even more troublesome is that industrial animal agriculture is so firmly entrenched as the dominant mode of production that any alternative–again, so called sustainable animal agriculture–comes off looking like a savior, a knight in shining armor, or at least a prodigal son. In reality, though, it’s more like a Trojan Horse.

The human mind responds well to dichotomies. Industrial agriculture is super bad. Non-industrial agriculture is thus super good. This is an easy distinction that, for most critics of agriculture, is beyond dispute. The problem, though, is that the dichotomy is false. Terribly false. It exists not because of an objective difference between industrial and “sustainable” agriculture. Instead it thrives because of what consumers choose to see. And what consumers choose to see depends deeply on a question people in the sustainable food movement simply won’t talk about: what rights do farm animals have?

Ethical vegans build their worldview on the back of this question. We believe animals deserve some level of moral consideration. The extent of that moral consideration will always be an open question, but at the least ethical vegans believe that animals are worthy enough not to be intentionally killed so we can eat their bodies. Omnivores routinely call this idea radical. I call it common decency. I call it humane. It is through this humane lens, moreover, that I view the non-industrial farm raising animal products.  And what that lens invariably highlights is how similar that good farm is to the bad farm. “Humane” and “arbitrary death” don’t go so well together.

Take another look at the short film “Free Range” (above) and you’ll get the point. The film’s perspective is tilted in such a way that the small farm looks eerily like an industrial one: on this bucolic farm chickens are still grabbed by the legs, jammed into stacked crates, stuffed into a neat row of cones, and, as if on an assembly line, summarily killed. They’re tossed in scalding water, thrown into a centrifuge to be plucked, and hung up like articles of clothing. They’re cleaned and sold. It all happens on a smaller scale, but the ultimate goal is exactly the same.  This is what the humane perspective reveals. This is what you see when you think animals matter.

 Advocates of small-scale sustainable animal agriculture do not believe that animals have a right to their own lives. They believe animals are here for our use and exploitation. They thus see something altogether different.  When they look at a small animal farm, they see happiness. They avert their gaze from the murderous similarities and, instead, relish sunny skies and happy animals frolicking in green pastures. They support these farms because “the animals are treated with dignity.” Sure. Because when you believe animals can justifiably be killed whenever a human craves their flesh you don’t stop to ask: can arbitrary death ever be dignified?

Interestingly, these people also call their perspective humane. When I hear this term used for small scale animal agriculture I’m reminded of the comedian Louis CK, who likes to joke that he often imagines himself doing something virtuous and, even though he never actually does the virtuous act, feels smug satisfaction for even having the thought.  This is what supporters of small scale animal agriculture do. They see what they want to see, ignore the underlying and ultimate reality of what they witness, and feel good about themselves for even caring about animals at all. They do this as they “give thanks” over their happy meat.

The paradox here is almost worth smiling over. Small scale animal farms can only be considered “humane” when the consumer adopts an inhumane perspective. In other words, it is only when the consumer reduces a sentient animal to an object worthy of commodifying that he can call the system–a violent system–that does the objectifying “humane.”  To call this trick of the mind “better” than industrial farming is not only far-fetched, it’s a distortion of the values advocates of sustainable agriculture so earnestly claim to seek.  One reader recently noted that I allow the “perfect to be the enemy of the better.” In light of what I argue here, I’d put it differently: I allow compassion to be the enemy of self-deception. As do all ethical vegans.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

9 Responses to The Orwellian Distortion of “Humane”

  1. brian lindberg says:

    Of course, the ulitimate right of animals bred for food is the right to not exist. Not killed, but not born. (no one is going to be supporting them as pets). And this is the only truly sustainable agriculture in a world of 7 billion people (which had also better be a temporary spike). But before a cultural change of this degree occurs, people will have to become genuinely concerned for the health and future of the entire planet. From this full sense of compassion, they will move to the particulars on their own (no cattle prods needed).

  2. Wayne says:

    Mr. McWilliams,
    You are clearly opposed to ever killing an animal for food. That is a high minded philosophical stance but that is about it. It is a point that can be debated endlessly and cuts to the core of who and what we are and who and what are all forms of life. Mortality is not a pleasant thing for all of us creatures who are cursed with it. An adult who would take a bite of meat should understand that an animal was killed for that bite and should spit it out of their mouths if they would not be willing to kill it themselves.

    The small farm movement is fledgling and fragile. It is strange that you are so threatened by it. Your viewpoint is that it is immoral to kill an animal for food. Many cultures and systems of thought would disagree entirely with that premise. This issue does not have anything to do with the issues of HOW we raise animals which does matter immensely, contrary to your position. While you write against small farmers they are struggling against almost insurmountable odds to get their little farm operation up and running, working themselves to death to care for their animals and their land, and obsessing about how to do what they think is right for the soil, the environment, the animals, and the people they feed. These micro farmers do not have the nice salary, health care, and pension that you enjoy as a professor. They are ostracized from the larger farming community and constantly threatened with unfair regulation that is drafted by big ag. It is a thankless job and it is not a profitable job. Any of these farmers that I know would never take a bite of industrial meat because they do actually care about the dignity of these animals. You may very well win your struggle and the small farms may go away again but the CAFO’s will not go away. It is so bizarre that you devote your effort to attacking small farms rather that CAFO’s. Is it because you would not be published in the Times if you were writing about why CAFO’s are horrifically immoral. I guess you are a Machiavellian zealot for your cause… hopefully it’s not something more insidious since your arguments entirely help the industrial meat system that is so terrified to lose a couple percentage points of their market share.

  3. CQ says:

    Hi Wayne,

    Please, no offense intended. But may I say that, to me, some of your comments are perfect examples of the very speciesist self-deceit that blogger McWilliams constantly rails against.

    How, for instance, can you say seriously that micro farmers are “working themselves to death to care for the animals” when in fact it is not the animals (or their needs) killing the farmers, but vice versa — literally!

    How, as another for instance, can you say they are “obsessing about how to do what they think is right for … the environment,” when every unbiased scientific study in existence today makes it eminently clear that animal agriculture, no matter what size the operation, regardless of whether organic or not, is dooming our planet!

    To pretend that this modestly-paid professor with a few benefits doesn’t empathize with small farmers with no benefits impugns his character and misses the point. As far as I can tell from his dozens of blogs and op-eds, James cares more for the farmer’s — and the farmer’s customers’ — health and welfare than even the farmer does! He is genuinely and rightly concerned that it’s curtains for farmers and consumers alike, humans and nonhumans together, if we humans do not wean ourselves, beginning right now, off of our millenia-old cultural tradition of eating animals.

    (If Homo sapiens had never started killing-and-eating animals way back when and someone suggested beginning that practice now, I don’t think many enlightened people would favor the idea.)

    To my mind, a small farmer is being as arbitrary and capricious as an industrial animal factory owner in choosing to kill other sentient beings as a means of earning a living. They are on the same side, not opposite sides. They victimize the same “others.” They both explicitly hand a death sentence — a day and time of execution — to those victims.

    To say or imply that killing is not virtuous if the animal comes from a CAFO but is virtuous if the animal was bred and raised by a working-his-fingers-to-the-bone little guy sidesteps a crucial truth: killing when there is no need to do so is immoral. And that very immorality, manifesting itself in all sorts of unhealthy ways, is, I believe, what is slowly killing us, eating away at us, body and soul.

    While I agree that it is dirty of the big ag sharks to slant legislation and regulations in their favor with the aim of exterminating their spider-size competitors, those same spider-sized farmers are all the while snaring innocent animals in their web, then asking for my sympathy. Many of these family farmers, I readily admit, are fine individuals, fine parents, fine citizens. But I cannot feel pity for someone who can make a decision to grow vegetables and fruits and nuts and yet chooses instead to bring innocent animals into existence for the sole purpose of ending the animals’ lives to finance the mortgage payment.

    • Wayne says:


      I do appreciate your thoughtful response. These issues are very important and the current ideological friction and splits among those who really care about the future of the planet is a big problem. These issues are very complex and there is a lot of misinformation out there (McWilliams included.) You say that all neutral scientists out there say that animal agriculture is inherently environmentally destructive. That argument is very flawed. Any neutral studies use animal agriculture ‘as is.’ Animal agriculture ‘as is’ is 99% industrial and very destructive. You are very correct in asserting that one should not consume it’s products. There is a very direct and obvious way to think about the question of animal agriculture being inherently destructive to the environment… are animals inherently destructive. Do animals not belong on the planet? Can human animals not tend to them and to the ecosphere around them in a creative way which furthers biodiversity and health of the ecosphere around them? I have looked into these things quite a bit and I do know that the answer is yes. You have to look at the best ideas in the world though.

      I do want to say is that the era of cheap fuel is coming to an end which means the end of the modern era. (Bill McKibbon, Eaarth, and James H. Kunstler, The Long Emergency) There is no substitution for oil and we have already hit peak according to most credible experts. Humans will have to adjust and my conviction is that without a car vegans will ride horses, and without a tractor vegans will plow with oxen and draft horses. The entirety of McWilliams stance is based on the non-necessity of animals for human use. This is based on the assumption that cheap fuel will continue. We are at the dawning of a different world right now and it is very important that we lay in the infrastructure to bring back the small farms. I don’t know to what extent you understand it, but all the small farms are gone… it is much worse than you might think and it is in fact perilous. If the oil supply is interrupted people will start starving rather quickly due to the fact that there is absolutely no localized food system left. Most of the organic vegetable farmers I have known have animals integrated in some way, and all of them sure as hell would if they had no fuel for machines. Farming of any sort is a strange dance with life and death. There is a terrible violence when you plow a field. The earth shrieks when you tear into it. A good farmer does not own their land…the land owns them. I am in no way asking for your pity to the farmer but if you did not respect an organic farmer’s effort your opinion would not be worth much. You may find yourself wishing that you personally knew one when all the CSA’s are full and the supermarket food is 10 times as expensive as it is now… or there are no more supermarkets. The modern human has completely lost site of what supports life. I am not saying that you have but just that it is worth reflecting on.

      I am not arguing the morality of killing another creature. I respect the vegan position that life is sacred and humans should not take it. I also respect the republican’s position that abortion is wrong. I am not trying to conflate these two things. That same republican may also like to see the river cleaned up and breathe cleaner air and eat food that wasn’t sprayed with poison. We can and should work together where we can. CAFO agriculture is a terrible thing and it has very few enemies. If we can get rid of that stuff, and rebuild the farms, maybe a fight between vegans and locavores would make sense (non violent…don’t worry 😉 A public fight does not make any sense now. Mr. McWilliams contends that industrial meat is threatened by veganism and not by sustainable meat producers. It is threatened by both and as long as those two sides are divided there is no way to win.

      The sustainable meat community is not irked with Mr. McWilliams for his moral stance but for his very public arguments which are full of inaccuracies, and the type of faulty rhetoric that we have become accustomed to coming from the pens of paid political commentators. His articles are in no way a reasoned analysis of sustainable agriculture systems and goals. The problem is that people do not know better at all and believe him. I know that the industrial meat people have a real chuckle about that guy. He uses their talking points! I am only writing on his blog to have a conversation with his fans. I know McWilliams is hopeless after reading a couple more of his articles. History is full of people who would make any argument to achieve their goals. Unfortunately the goal of knocking out public support for small farms will only help continue the total dominance by animal facilities that are modeled after concentration camps. Currently in Michigan the concentration pork industry has lobbied the Department of Natural Resources to ban all pigs on farms that are not the breed that they raise. They have made Heritage breed pigs illegal and are charging those that keep them as felons. They are raiding small farms and ordering the death of ordinary livestock. You may rejoice at this but they are also coming after the veggie people. The Food Safety senate bill almost put all the small veggie farmers out of business, it was drafted by a Monsanto consultant, but at the last minute through outcry an amendment got in exempting producers of less than $500k annually from the worst of the legislation. By the way this bill did nothing for food safety. My point is that we are so much weaker divided and we hardly stand a chance as is.

      (As an aside, if you do not ‘bust ass’ and grow a good amount of your own food, even on your apartment roof, your opinion on these matters would be irrelevant. We have enough armchair critics. Get your hands dirty people)

      • Mountain says:

        Beautifully put, Wayne. McWilliams is civil enough that I had hope for him, but I’ve seen example after example of seemingly willful blindness. I want to be part of a meaningful discussion of animals & their vital role in the future of our planet, but I have to wonder if I’m wasting my time here.

      • CQ says:

        I hear you, Wayne. I understand the degree to which the industrial agriculture and chemical and biotech and pharma industries are attacking and annihilating the little guy, including, as you point out, veggies. And like you, I see the writing on the wall for fossil fuels. By the way, tar sands and fracking and the push for Arctic oil drilling are frightening, aren’t they?

        But I respectfully disagree that we will return to horse and buggy days. We are too inventive to go backwards.

        And I respectfully disagree that James is a paid political commentator. My sense is that he is a rebel with a moral cause, no less earnest and purely motivated than William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery orator and writer who refused to give slavery a pass.

        Also, I respectfully disagree that James is against sustainable agriculture. That wouldn’t make sense. My reading is that he is against the breeding and killing animals as part and parcel of the small-ag model. That’s far different from saying he is “knocking out public support for small farms.”

        If there weren’t such a thing as vegan organic farming — that is, if it were literally impossible to grow crops without animal inputs — that would be one thing. But various methods of veganic farming, with testing of new methods going on all the time, have proved that farming without animals can be accomplished, in any and every climate. The more farmers adopt it, the more veganic will thrive. The more it is promoted, the more consumers will hear about it and demand it. Unless, of course, they are forced to admit that their addiction to flesh outweighs their stated goal of consuming sustainably, treading earth lightly.

        In which case, James’ point would be made: small farmers who raise animals are catering to either naive customers who believe — or dishonest customers who pretend — they are improving the earth, staving off environmental disaster (including water shortages) and caring about the steers, chickens and pigs whose “100% vegetarian-fed” bodies they throw on the grill.

        I realize I am not in James’ head. Nor have I lived in your shoes, Wayne. I’m just trying to make sense of all the lame excuses flying around for why we STILL eat animals. I cannot. It’s nonsense. Again, I mean no offense, and realize you don’t either.

        P.S. What I despise the most in these so-called humane operations is the lack of respect the animals receive once it’s “their time.” How would you like to be picked up by your legs, slammed in a crate, forced upside-down into a cone where there was no hope of escape, watch your neighbor’s throat being cut, then feel the blade slicing the life blood out of you? There will never ever in my mind, heart or soul be a valid reason to disrespect the dignity and the desire-to-live of any fellow-being, no matter how trivial that being seems to be in the scheme of things. I know, by the way, that veganic farming attracts beneficial insects and does NOT kill wild animals who inhabit fields, forests, skies. So we’re looking at a future where humans won’t be wiping out innocent lives even unintentionally.

      • Provoked says:

        Hello Wayne – I’ve read the replies that CQ wrote to you and there’s not much that I can add… I agree with everything CQ eloquently said.

        But I would like to mention that I do get my hands very dirty every day growing a good bit of my own food… I’m proud of my callouses and love that what I eat leaves a very small imprint on the planet. Particularly on those sentient beings that others sacrifice in the name of sustainable meat. Granted I’m fortunate to live in a climate that permits year-round produce… But still, if I lived else where I’m sure I’d master the techniques of canning and preserving to get me through.

        It’s a remarkable thing what these vegetables do… After they’ve reached maturity as the broccoli I just cut today did… The leaves can be made to decay to fertilize the next batch of tomatoes, or peppers… And so their remains too can be recycled – Never needed the first bit of cow poo or chicken blood – And all is well!

        Finally, I doubt that vegans would take up horse riding in the event that gas or electric cars cease to be. No… I think all our bicycles – (some rusty) but most never left long enough for the dust to settle on them, will be rode instead. It is as what was implied… Supporters of animal use only see two ways – Big or small… Horse or “horsepower”… I’m glad there’s me along with millions of others who say differently.

  4. Ellie Maldonado says:

    Wayne, here’s something from the Journal of Animal Science (J. Anim. Sci. Vol. 85, Suppl. 1/J. Dairy Sci. Vol. 90, Suppl. 1/Poult. Sci. Vol. 86, Suppl. 1): Bio Ethics – Livestock and Poultry: The Ethics of Food Animal Production, Processing and Marketing

    As Section 39 (Environmental aspects of ethical animal production. J. M. Siegford* and W. J. Powers, Michigan State University, East Lansing) explains, pasture-based systems increase methane production and release into the atmosphere. Where grazing is the predominant land use, it contributes to nitrate leaching into the groundwater. As an alternative of gestation creates, hoop housing for female pigs increases the risk of nutrient leaching into soil and to groundwater contamination, as do air emissions as the result of less opportunity to trap and treat emissions. The increase of cage and land space for farm animals also increases the surface mass of excreta and corresponding emissions. Combining animal welfare with organic production may require greater nutrient inputs, that result in less efficient nutrient use and greater losses to the environment.

  5. Wayne says:

    Mountain: thanks for the support. I’m hoping I’m not totally wasting my time. The situation is pretty dire and it would sure be nice to have at least a contentious alliance with the vegan folks who care about sustainable agriculture.

    CQ: ‘Too inventive to go backward’ is unfortunately almost comical. In a gallows sort of way though. Hubris is fatal. The 20th century is not much more than the internal combustion engine and free energy that spews out of the ground when you stick a straw in. Really not that impressive. I guess the vegan community is pretty atheist but I think you may agree in any case that God doesn’t care. We can and will be reduced to scratching the ruined ground for garbage if we continue to bring ourselves there. Also CQ you made a point, basically, that because farming can be done without animals animal agriculture is unsustainable. I’m not sure that that makes much sense as a point even. But, if you really look into this stuff without ideologically clouded filters you will quickly find out that animals are often times part of the most advanced ecologically balanced agricultural methods ever conceived by mankind. That is a different issue than whether or not it is unethical for humans to kill animals. If you believe that is wrong to do I would never want to change your mind even if I could. Veganic is a great thing. Of course it would take waaay more manpower, which is why animals were used in the first place. Real life can be reduced to some harsh math equations involving calories. Humans are not the masters of this anyway, and nearly 100 years of fossil fuel easy life has stripped just about all of our skill sets for living. I say again…the situation is dire. We have to rebuild the localized food systems.

    Provoked: Respect. Organic food gardening using cycled compost is amazing. Earthworms, bacteria, and mycelia are amazing. More power to you. Bicycles are a hell of an invention and will work very well I think for as long as people are around. They don’t work that well for plowing or hauling a ton of produce to market though. Also you would have to be a hell of a mountain bike rider to go over the sort of terrain that a horse can pass easily over.

    Ellie: That article you linked to is trash. It is not backed up by anything and is only conjecture. It is clearly written by someone who knows nothing. The word ‘may’ is used in almost every point. Is that the kind of crap that McWilliams is using to back up his arguments? Proper rotational grazing sequesters carbon. This more than offsets the methane released by the fermentation that the grass goes through in the cow’s rumen. The roots are driven up to several feet further into the ground then if not grazed according to growth cycle. These roots continually die off and regenerate. Those roots are carbon. They are made out of the carbon in the air which is put in the ground. That is called sequestration. This process is made super rapid by proper rotational grazing. The earth teems with life in and below a properly grazed pasture. That little blurb of an article has absolutely no information and is obviously based on nothing. The Journal of Animal Science is an industry rag. Please someone hit me with something thats not this type useless garbage if you want to try to site sources.

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